Brawn meets beauty

On a recent night out with friends, Karla Jackson learned one of them was frustrated trying to help an aging couple find a nice senior community to retire to. The couple complained “they don’t want to live somewhere where ‘old people’ live,” says the award-winning director of studioSIX5, an Austin, TX-based company and largest design firm that works exclusively for senior living. “They don’t want something that someone has intentionally tried to make look like grandma’s house because they think grandma is comfortable in surroundings like that. People no longer consider themselves in the ‘senior’ demographic when they go into one of these communities. They want something that looks fresh and contemporary.”

The firm’s most senior project design and management specialist also is just old enough to remember how hogtied her peers were when it came to the materials and fabrics from which to work. “When I started in senior living some 20 years ago, fabrics were vinylized, so they’d take chintzes and cabbage rose quilted fabrics and pour a thin layer of vinyl on top,” she recalls. “People were sliding all over the place. The furniture was shiny. It was just tacky.”

No more. As Jackson and the rest of the industry have now discovered, furnishings today are not only as aesthetically pleasing and comfortable as those in the finest hotels, they’re also disguised to take a veritable beating. 

There is a ton of new technology in and under those fancy upholstered bournes and banquette benches. Even the most favored ebony and cherry woods can now be artfully mimicked by rock-hard faux finishes layered thick over case-hardened steel frames.

Forget ‘shabby chic’

If it weren’t for the “Greatest Generation,” designers would be nonplussed when it comes to demanding — some would even say “choosy” — baby boomers, who are largely driving transformations in everything about senior living, furnishings included.

“Many of us have parents in their late 70s and 80s,” Jackson adds. “They are the silent generation who grew up in the Depression and fought World War II. They were happy with anything they could get and still are. We’re just now dealing with the leading edge of baby boomers who are coming along with a very different world view. And they’re only going to get more and more discriminating.”

Adding to the challenge are the multiple “customers” that designers must appeal to simultaneously. 

“We’re designing for several people besides the resident now,” says Dean Maddalena, studioSIX5’s president and architect. “There’s the 57-year-old first-born daughter who’s assisting her parents with the selection; the grandkids, because you want it to be a cool place for them to visit their grandparents; the caregivers, so it’s easy to clean and move so they feel proud of the space and utilize it to its maximum potential; and even the local community, because more and more facilities are recruiting outside organizations and clubs to come and utilize their space for social gatherings and events.” Maddalena said his firm is working with one community that is selling outsiders memberships to their wellness center. 

Not only are senior communities grappling with the tastes of multiple audiences, but as many manufacturers suggest, they should view the big picture to avoid that cobbled look. “The most successful interiors will use a holistic approach to selecting flooring, furniture and finishes,” says Ridley Kinsey, director of healthcare and retail markets for Patcraft, who advises operators to simultaneously consider safety, ease of mobility, acoustics, durability/performance, ease of maintenance and repair, installation, design and initial and lifecycle cost when outfitting their communities.

“When we start a project, we visit a variety of local popular places, like hotels, country clubs and restaurants so we understand the vernacular and style of architecture that’s favored and use it as a springboard for the design,” says Maddalena. 

“After that comes the challenging part — applying senior ergonomics. Hotels and restaurants may have low, deep seats popular with millennials that would never work in a senior living community,” Maddalena adds.

Blending style

Hundreds of manufacturers got the memo: operators are demanding furnishings that are equal parts contemporary and durable. There’s a world of aesthetically pleasing and easily maintainable materials on the market today.

Earnie Taylor, a sales expert for Assured Comfort Beds, takes a great deal of pride “producing a product that reminds customers of the many great years of their life, which in turn makes them happier when they are put in a situation of changing a style of life or a residence.” 

Taylor said his company’s goal with its adjustable bed line was to design a strong product “that no longer has that ‘hospital bed look,’ that looks like a designer bed that you bought out of an upscale furniture store.”

Direct Supply offers a line of veneer casegoods — a real-wood product similar to what most people have in their homes — but adds a laminate top to resist moisture and scratching, easy-to-use hardware to accommodate arthritic residents, and ventilated backs to promote airflow and reduce bacteria, says Jadi Endl, a senior product consultant.

Everyone today is talking about brawn as much as beauty.

“Operators want furniture that is strong enough to support the entire resident population, so the furniture should be steel-reinforced,” says Michael Zusman, CEO of Kwalu. “The design of seating in a community is important for all body types and strengths. The ergonomics and arm heights of a chair aid those who need extra help sitting or standing. Seniors who like to cat nap in a chair can benefit from the neck support that wing-back chairs provide. 

“Sturdy furniture that does not easily tip over is also very important. As people age, they may use the arms of the chair to stead themselves to lean on for support. That support should be strong and dependable.”

Higher density foam is critical in senior living seating, says Troy Rabbett, contract marketing specialist for Flexsteel Industries. “It’s a delicate balance,” he says. “For us, it’s all about comfort and durability, not just one or the other.”

High-tech tools

“Seniors can be very hard on furniture, says Maddalena. “They have walkers, electric wheelchairs and canes, in addition to using any furniture in sight for weight bearing. Long ago, it was difficult to find those kinds of materials that were attractive. Now it’s pretty much standard in the industry. Healthcare has been the hospitality driver for a while now. They want the attractive, in-demand fabrics that have commercial durability and strength and longevity.”

The combination of style and durability can impact a community’s marketability and resident satisfaction, according to Endl. 

“We have seen an increased demand for hospitality-inspired pieces like writing desks, hospitality stations that house a mini-fridge and microwave, media chests, stools and banquette seating for dining. Since these types of products were not typically found in senior living, accommodations have had to be made to ensure they will hold up under the demands of these environments,” Endl notes.

Even large design firms like studioSIX5 sometimes can’t find just the right piece for a particular community project. That’s when they partner with firms like Kwalu and Mannington Commercial Flooring for customized designs, some 40 to date. 

Its designers routinely use 3-D printing, which allows them to sketch out new designs and take small-scale prototypes to clients for approval.

They’re also blessed, as is everyone else is, with high-tech fabric technology that greatly extends the life of upholstered furniture, casegoods and millwork. “There’s a wonderful material that’s been around for 15 years that’s really evolved around the aesthetic and feel of fabric called Crypton,” Jackson says. 

“Today, beautiful jacquards, wovens and any kind of fabric is available in Crypton finish. It’s bulletproof in that it has a moisture barrier, it’s stain-resistant, and really holds up well to any kind of abuse you throw at it, in addition to the 50,000 double-rub criteria.” Other kinds of high-tech design materials are seen in vinyl floor planks that mimic the look of porcelain and wood.

Maximizing lifespan

The general rule of thumb with furnishings: If you buy quality goods, expect them to last 7-10 years, say Maddalena and others. 

Chairs are the first to go simply because they are the most used and abused. Endl advises operators to “invest in good quality, contract-grade furniture and fabrics, and educate staff on how to properly maintain them.” 

Taylor suggests investing in higher density seat cushions or stronger fabric as one way to extend chair life.

Finally, everyone advises operators to not pinch pennies when it comes to a furnishings investment. “I’ve visited many properties that outfitted their facilities with furnishings made for the general public,” says Maddalena. “I’d constantly see staff helping residents get in and out of seating because the ergonomics seniors specifically need aren’t there. If you’re in this for the long run, you’re going to be paying more in the long run to replace furniture all the time.”